Couperin’s petits motets have a rather interesting history. They were written in the 1690’s though we don’t know for whom. Couperin had links with the Church of St. Andre des Arts and also with the exiled Jacobite Court at St Germain en Laye, both of whom promoted music in the Italian style. Couperin’s petits motets are very Italian, in fact Edward Higginbottom in his booklet note describes Couperin as transferring the Italian trio sonata idiom to the motet genre. Of course, Couperin had Royal links as well so his motets may well have been performed by the chapelle royale. At this establishment, the service opened with a grand motet, a petit motet was performed at the elevation with a final Domine salvum fac Regem at the end; though it should be understood that the service itself went on largely silently whilst the music progressed. It is not clear whether all of Couperin’s would have been suitable for the Elevation.
For three of the motets (Resonent organa, Ornate aras and Exultent superi), strings parts do not survive in any other sources so this has prevented them from being performed and recorded. Part of the raison d’être of this recording from New College, Oxford, was to present Edward Higginbottom’s reconstructions of the three motets which are based on the surviving figured bass plus models from other Couperin motets. They were recorded alongside a selection of other Couperin motets, nine in total.
This is a disc for soloists only, quite correctly, and the choir of New College Oxford in toto never appears. The performers are soloists from the choir and members of Collegium Novum. Jonty Ward and Inigo Jones are the trebles (aged 13 and 11 at the time of recording), Guy Cutting the haute contre (he was a choral scholar reading Music), Nick Pritchard the bass-taille, effectively baritone (reading Music), with basses George Coltart (reading Medicine), Tom Edwards and Duncan Saunderson (both lay clerks and in the teaching profession).
All of Couperin’s motets on this disc have a similar structure, the soloists combine in various flexible combinations mixing solos with ensembles, interpolated with instrumental sections; some are accompanied by strings and organ, others by organ on its own.
Resonent organa a 3 et symphonies, Pro Sancta Cecilia features Jonty Ward, Guy Cutting and George Coltart with strings and organ. This a substantial piece, with lovely, dance-like symphonies before and between the vocal movements. The strings here, and in all the motets, give the music a nicely elegant bounce and rhythm. Ward is sweetly soft-toned and all three soloists are stylish in their period performance complete with trills and period pronunciation.
Ward re-appears on the following motet, Tantum ergo sacramentum a 3, with Inigo Jones and Duncan Saunderson. This is a short piece with just organ accompaniment, though I have to confess that it is one of my favourites on the disc, partly for the way that the voices of the two trebles blend and contrast.
What gives the recording its charm and character, is the use of solo voices from the college and the decision to use trebles rather than young women. Higginbottom was clearly lucky that he had two such fine trebles available. Both Ward and Jones have sweet, unforced voices and both seem to have a way with the French 17th century style, they both sing with a maturity which belies their age.
Ornate aras. Elevation a voix seul et Symphonie is for solo voice (Guy Cutting) with strings and organ accompaniment; it is another substantial work with instrumental interludes. Cutting has a flexible and flowing voice, nicely free at the top. The structure here is more free and fluid as Couperin explores the words. One of the delights of these pieces is the way Couperin points the text in a flexible and expressive way. Cutting has a good way with the vocal line and an expressive voice.
The two trebles return in Laud Sion Salvatorem, and again show a nice feel for the line, plus great blend and contrast. Further contrast comes from the next piece, O Domine quia refugium. Precatio ad Deum à 3. This uses three lower voices, Nick Pritchard, Duncan Saunderson and Tom Edwards. Each contributes stylish solos and the three blend well in the à3 and à2 passages, though Edwards does seem a little challenged by the low tessitura.
O misterium ineffabile. Elevation has Jonty Ward and George Coltart accompanied just by organ. It is a low-key piece, in keeping with the subject matter. It is fascinating to hear the way Couperin sets the à 2 passages, with quite a significant distance between the treble and the bass. Again there are hints that the tessitura of the bass part might be challenging.
Another substantial piece, with string accompaniment, Ad te levavi oculos meos, à voix seule et Symponie is a solo for George Coltart. There is a pervading air of melancholy to this piece, which Coltart captures nicely. Domine Salvum fac Regem is a short duet, for Jonty Ward and George Coltart. The disc then finishes with the final of Higginbottom’s reconstructions, Exultent superi à 3 et symphonie. This has Ward, Cutting and Coltart with string accompaniment. Again the string introduction is rather dance-like, with definitely elegant exultation. Cutting’s contributions are particularly characterful here.
Edward Higginbottom directs from the organ. He clearly knows (he wrote the Couperin article in New Grove Dictionary) and loves this music. In terms of speeds and balance the recordings are excellent and the sound quality manages to combine the right degree of clarity and atmosphere.
Higginbottom contributes a fine booklet note which covers Couperin, his music, the sources and the reconstructions and there are texts and translations.
You could probably find many of these pieces in the catalogue recorded by greater voices, but that would be to miss the point. On this disc you can happily feel as if you were eavesdropping on the French chapelle royale. All the singers are nicely stylish and bring an enviable naturalness without the self-consciousness that period reconstructions can often have. For me, the stars are the two trebles, Jonty Ward and Inigo Jones. This is definitely a disc that I will play again and again.
Francois Couperin (1668 – 1773)
Resonent organ à 3 et symphonies. Pro Sancta Cecilia [12 :30]
Tantum ergo sacramentum à 3 [2:28]
Ornate aras. Elevation à voix seule et Symphonie. [9 :10]
Lauda Sion Salvatorem. Elevation à 2 [6:09]
O Domine quia refugium. Precatio ad Deum à 3 [7.26]
O misterium ineffabile. Elevation [4:44]
Ad te levavi oculos meos, à voice seule et symphonie Psal. 122 [8 :24]
Domine salvum fac Regem à 2 [3:04]
Exultent superi à 3 et symphonie [8:00]
Soloists of the Choir of New College Oxford
(Jonty Ward – dessus, Inigo Jones – dessus, Guy Cutting – haute-contre, Nick Pritchard – basse-taille, George Coltart – basse, Tom Edwards – basse, Duncan Saunderson – basse)
(Rodolpho Richter – violin, Bojan Cicic – violin, Susanne Heinrich – basse de viole, Edward Higginbottom – organ)
Edward Higginbottom (director)
Recorded at St Michael’s Church, Summertown, Oxford, 21-24 March, 2011
Novum NCR1384 [61:55}